Should the church break up with couples counseling?

Do you have one of those reoccurring professional nightmares that come back time after time, usually after you have liberally imbibed in some unusually spicy, but irresistibly tasty, guacamole as an appetizer to an incredibly good enchilada dinner? I do. One of them is the dream where I wake up on Sunday morning, prepared to step into the pulpit, only to find that all of my Sunday pants are gone and the only thing hanging in the closet are the pair of M.C. Hammer parachute pants that I had the poor judgment to buy in my younger days. Thankfully most of the evidence of their existence has been destroyed in the waking world. There are others but by God’s grace none of them are very likely.

However, there is one dream that happens periodically that has come to pass, and regrettably, could happen again. It’s the dream where a couple in leadership in the church show up to talk with me and tell me that they have decided to divorce.

When and if this ever happens, I know that I can’t just refer them to an “expert” and go on with my day as per usual. I know, when and if this ever happens, that my role, as their pastor, is to walk with them. I must either walk them through reconciliation or walk with them through a process of church discipline. Both are expressions of love for them and both are essential to maintaining the integrity of the body of Christ.

My attention was turned to this topic by a conversation that I had with Gretchen Baskerville who is in the process of writing a book entitled, “The Life-Saving Divorce.” Before discussing some areas of disagreement with Ms. Baskerville, I think it is important to note that she is diving into an area that is sorely needed in evangelicalism and I am glad that she is shining a light on an area of ministry that has been brushed under the rug for far too long.

The very serious situation that she is addressing is the spouse (most likely a wife) who wishes to separate or divorce her husband because she claims the marriage is no longer a healthy and safe place for her and for her children. According to Ms. Baskerville, between 40% and 50% of divorces are filed for what she would consider to be serious reasons rather than frivolous reasons. I would assume that when she uses the term “serious” she is referring to very weighty matters of sin such as adultery, cruelty, abuse, and spousal neglect.

I think we should all reflect on that statistic with a great deal of remorse. If her report is accurate, marriage in evangelical Christianity isn’t doing well despite the efforts of many denominational and parachurch ministries’ attempts at improving the health of Christian marriages.

Ms. Baskerville and I will likely agree on a number of precepts.
First, we likely agree that overly simplistic advice such as “just submit to him more” and the corresponding “just love her better” can’t be reasonably considered a comprehensive solution to these problems. Second, we likely agree that no one should have to subject themselves to an unsafe environment. Incidentally, if you are reading this and you are in an unsafe environment in your home the day to address it is today. If you are not physically safe in your home, you must find a safe place immediately! Third, we likely agree that there is a difference between a marriage where a couple may be going through a season of disappointment and a genuinely toxic environment characterized by fear, shame, and desperation.
Where we likely disagree is the church’s role helping marriages in both of these categories.

Ms. Baskerville articulates her desire that the church essentially, “stay in its own lane” when it comes to couples divorcing. She says the following:

And also the following:

Here is where Ms. Baskerville and I disagree. I think the church is not only a source of intervention into these situations, but it is also the only body that has the right tools to deal with these situations in God’s way.

A few concessions may be in order. I’ve seen pastors blow it on these issues as well. I’ve blown it myself, not noticing signs and red flags that I should have noticed. Most pastors aren’t trained psychologists, I agree. On the other hand, I know of psychologists who have also gotten it wrong, sometimes with very tragic consequences.

Nevertheless, the church can be the first place that people go when they have these issues because the pastor is already known to them, whereas a psychologist may be unfamiliar to them. The church has also been a place of support in the past, and the pastor doesn’t ask them to see the receptionist to fill out paperwork and collect a co-pay. Pastors and churches are likely to be a place people go for marital help whether we want them to or not. Even so, these practical considerations aren’t even the heart of my disagreement with Ms. Baskerville. The core of my dissent is that the marriage and the church are intended by God to be connected for at least three reasons.

First, God created marriage, it is a theological institution.

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (Gen 2:24 ESV)

There are three parts to the creation of a marriage, the first two are meant to be public.
The first is “leaving,” the public demonstration that a man leaves the protection and authority of his father’s house to create a new family with his bride. The second is “cleaving” or as the ESV translates it, “holding fast.” Again, this is meant to be witnessed publically as a husband and wife forsake all others and declare their fidelity to one another in the presence of their supportive community. Our modern wedding celebrations are a reflection of the fact that vows are taken and given in public so that others can testify to the authenticity of both bride and groom promising, with a good conscience, to “leave” and to “cleave.”

What makes a Christian marriage unique is that the church is the community that bears continued testimony to the vows that a husband and wife make to one another.  This leads to the second reason the church needs to be involved in marriages. God created marriage to be a picture of Christ and the church. The church is integral to marriage because marriage is illustrative of the church.

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Eph 5:31-32 ESV)

The church has a role in maintaining marriages precisely because marriage is an illustration of theologically profound truth. When the picture of our marriage more clearly reflects the grace-filled and life-giving relationship between Christ and the church it is doing what God intended for our marriage to do, it is illustrating the gospel. When sin distorts that image so that Christ and the church can no longer be seen, then one’s marriage is off track and the church is the only place that will remind a couple of the greater purpose their marriage serves.

Third, the church has a role in helping marriages succeed because the church’s commission is discipleship and discipleship is foundational to a healthy marriage. The means by which the church accomplishes this charge is through the authority of the Scriptures and the Scriptures address what marriage should look like and when it should end.  No other source of wisdom can claim what the scriptures claim, namely:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2Ti 3:16-17 ESV)

The scriptures alone can claim to sufficiently equip men and women for every good work, including the good work needed to keep a marriage thriving. Perhaps part of the disagreement that Ms. Baskerville and I have is a question of expertise. I don’t think that the psychologists, trained in secular theories, are the experts when it comes to what a healthy, Christian marriage looks like, not from God’s perspective. They can certainly hold out a secular vision for marriage, and there may be some overlap, but I admit my bias that God’s vision for marriage is not only distinct, but it is also perfect. I think the expertise of the psychologist pales in comparison to the expertise of the One who created marriage and we have His word to guide us through the many trials that may come.

I continue to hope that I have seen the end of the days where couples make an appointment to tell me they are calling it quits, but if not, then I can’t allow reluctance to deter me from walking with them through God’s word, to help them to see their marriage as God’s creation meant to illustrate God’s love for His church.

These are foundations of the reasons why I don’t think the church can punt on helping troubled marriages to work through serious issues.

I appreciate Ms. Baskerville and her commitment to protecting the vulnerable, that is a heart quality that should be lauded and respected. I hope she will feel free to comment and if so there may be a part 2.

2 thoughts on “Should the church break up with couples counseling?

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  1. I walked through a divorce last year after over five years of pastoral counseling (with a Reformed Baptist pastor). I thank God for a pastor who walked faithfully with me, called abuse what it is and was faithful to exhort both of us with the Word of God. I do believe my pastor very likely saved my life by listening and acknowledging the depth of the issues in my marriage.

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